The End of American Ascendancy

After two decades of almost uncontested American hegemony, the sole superpower of our age is in decline. Or so we are told. The financial meltdown; the rise of China; the failed foreign policies of President Bush or Obama, depending on from which side of the aisle you approach the problem — all seem to indicate that the United States is no longer alone at the game of playing master of the world.

To the right, this is a matter of great concern. Charles Krauthammer writes at The Weekly Standard that “decline is not a condition. Decline is a choice.” He suggests that “America is in the position of deciding whether to abdicate or retain its dominance,” and it’s those wishy-washy, putrid liberals in Congress and the White House that are steering America on a course for decline.

Krauthammer blames President Obama for having gone on world tour and apologize for every wrong ever committed by the United States. The consequence, he writes, is that any moral claim that America might have to world leadership has been effectively undermined. “According to the new dispensation, having forfeited the mandate of heaven — if it ever had one — a newly humbled America now seeks a more modest place among the nations, not above them.” How, without America paramount, is the international system to function?

Henry Kissinger once said that the only way to achieve peace is through hegemony or balance of power. Well, hegemony is out. As Obama said in his General Assembly address, “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation.” […] And if hegemony is out, so is balance of power: “No balance of power among nations will hold.”

Rather, multipolar arrangements not of nation states but of groups of states acting through multilateral bodies, whether institutional (like the International Atomic Energy Agency) or ad hoc (like the P5+1 Iran negotiators), will set the tone, Krauthammer predicts.

At World Politics Review, Thomas Barnett takes issue with Krauthammer’s gloomy view of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy which, according to him, accepts that “globalization is an inescapable condition of profound interdependency — the destroyer of zero-sum competition.” Republican hawks, on the other hand, think of globalization as “nothing more than the next playing field upon which fierce great-power competition and conflicts will unfold,” in spite of the fact that no great-power war occurred during the last six decades and classic state-on-state war has been virtually eradicated.

Barnett claims globalization and, indeed, the whole postwar “international liberal trade order” for the left and boasts that the “Americanization” has been accomplished. There is no need, he suggests, for American hegemony when culturally and economically, American influence is supreme. Besides — something he doesn’t take into account — militarily, the United States will remain the uncontested superpower for decades to come.

So why is the right so scared? For one thing, the economic and political rise of China worries conservatives. The first cannot be prevented and actually benefits the United States in the shape of trade and hopefully, political change in the near future. The emergence of China unto the world stage in a political and military sense however is where Republicans draw a firm line, “while accusing the Democrats of preemptive surrender in their effort to rebalance America’s global security responsibilities with the domestic need for economic regeneration.”

No matter how you game out America’s current strategic trajectory, the inevitable result is increased Chinese influence over the American economy and the global security situation.

All the more reason to be nice to China. Krauthammer however probably isn’t worried so much about the Middle Kingdom in the first place; it’s rogue states as Iran and North Korea, global terrorism and resurging Russia that should be on his mind when he fears that America is losing its strategic advantage.

In the face of those challenges, the Obama Administration mustn’t waver. But if indeed there is a “New Liberalism” that, as Krauthammer claims, abhors the notion of American exceptionalism and believes American hegemony to be corrupting and unjust, it’s not in the Obama White House that it prevails as of yet.

One comment

  1. Whilst decline may be seen as a choice by the hawks, and as imminent by others I’d flip the whole thing on its head and say Hegemony isn’t. Barnett says that Economic and cultural supremacy is well assured and there’s no need to bother with ‘hegemony’ but surely that’s all part and parcel of what hegemony IS. Passive, un-intentional soft power is generated off the back of hard-power; concerted effort to keep US on top. The two could be said to be symbiotic. However without the US safe-guarding the status-quo which it brought into being, that status-quo would not last. Other practices and institutions, pushed by soft-power would overtake the US position if it did not sure it up. In other words the US uni-polar position is very strong, even now, in all areas. But that state of affairs isn’t autonomous. Barnett dismisses the need to do anything and the hawks are perhaps too quick to presume this is the end and some-kind of stepping up need be taken. I don’t think the US will lose its strategic advantage by that much any time soon.

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